Museums, Archaeology & Mobile Apps

Got myself an iPad a couple of weeks ago so I am now learning about the mobile app business.  I have to confess that the biggest draw for me in taking the iPad plunge was to use a music/sound making app called Reactable.  At the same, I sufficiently rationalized the iPad’s portability and work applications as factors to justify the cost.  To dutifully follow-up on the rationalizations, I went to the App Store and searched on Anthropology, Archaeology, Museums to see what all was out there.  There is a good bit of cool stuff.  You can tour Roman-era London via the Londinium app produced by the Museum of London, explore the Please Touch the Exhibit app from the Melbourne Museum, view fine art in the Philips Collection multimedia app based in Washington D.C., and on and on . . .

There is a good bit of museum and archaeology app stuff out there.  But are these apps the latest fad, toys, or what?  As is often the case the American Association of Museum provides a good summary overview text on the subject.  Mobile Apps for Museums: The AAM Guide to Planning and Strategy edited by Nancy Proctor is a good place to start investigating the applicability of these new mobile applications.  Proctor is the Smithsonian’s Head of New Media Initiatives.

In 100 pages, the volume contains 12 brief overview essays on almost all phases of mobile apps from the technical to practical considerations.  An additional 12-page glossary interprets the jargon inherent in any such discussion.  Although a careful read of the entire volume is worthwhile, several essays stood out to me:

  •  Robert Stein’s essay “Mobile Content Strategies for Content Sharing and Long-Term Sustainability” deals with the compatibility of museum apps across time and space.  He reports on a paper he and Proctor co-authored at the 2011 Museums and the Web Conference that addresses this issue and references the TourML wiki as a source for ongoing dialogue.  The upshot of the article is recognizing the importance in the early stages of app development that there are industry standards to assure the production of quality and interactive products.
  • Kate Haley Goldman’s essay “Understanding Adoption of Mobile Technology with Museums” is an important first read for anyone considering mobile apps in museum settings.   Goldman astutely observes that “for institutions already using mobile interpretation, encouraging visitors to use the mobile interpretation was the largest challenge.  Yet for others – vendors and researchers, as well as those considering projects – attracting new visitors via mobile was a primary goal.  This disconnect represents a great opportunity for future research” (p. 67).  Goldman speculates that part of the disconnect comes from the validity and reliability of the visitor survey measures.  She argues for visitor based longitudinal studies to help clarify the issue.  This understanding echoes Clay Shirkey’s concern that internet technology must be relevant to existing behavior.
  • Jane Burton’s essay “Playful Apps” provides another layer of insights as the relationship of the museum user to museum apps. She notes that you can explore physics by playing Launchball from the Science Museum of London or learn about human origins by visiting Meanderthal from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  She cites Flurry, a San Francisco based smartphone analytics firm report, in noting that “studying the U.S. mobile gamer, we note that she earns over 50% more than the average American, is more than twice as likely to have earned a college bachelor’s degree, and is more like to be white or Asian” (p. 74).  Like Goldman, she finds that conventional wisdom on app adoption and use in museums might be suspect and counter the conventional wisdom of the typical app user.
The collection of essays provides an excellent starting point and balanced overview for anyone wishing to get beyond the immediate must have hype or the flip side of too quickly dismissing the use of mobile apps in museum or archaeology public engagement efforts.  However, except for an essay on mobile apps at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, no author in the volume considered in a substantive way whether the apps actually fit in with the mission of the museum or organization.  Proposals for adopting such new technology that are thoroughly enmeshed in the mission of the institution will allow justification of the high cost of app development and equipment often needed to operate the systems.  Otherwise, nay sayers (and funders) may argue that we are just jumping on to the latest interpretive fad.

What is your experience with mobile apps?

From Me to We: Museums & Communities

In academia today there is a tension between the importance of interdisciplinary studies compared to single discipline research.  Although universities encourage collaboration across disciplines as an effective means for applied research individuals are evaluated and rewarded for production within their own departments.  To see the range of the discussion on this point, google interdisciplinary studies on the Chronicle of Higher Education website.

This tension can also be framed within a me vs we approach.  In a strict disciplinary approach, departments are viewed as individual “me” silos concerned foremost with their own self-interest and often with little concern about what happens outside of their own walls.  The interdisciplinary approach is considerably more engaging as a web of interaction that plays off of multiple partners.  In this capacity, the product of the interdisciplinary whole is more than the sum its individual departmental components creating a group synergy.

I have thought about the need for an interdisciplinary approach for a cultural heritage development in project in Orange Mound, an African American community of Memphis Tennessee with roots extending into the late 1800s.  The Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis is currently assisting the Orange Mound community in the creation of a local component for the traveling exhibit The Way We Worked from the Smithsonian Institution.  Orange Mound community discussions around the exhibit immediately raised possibilities for other cultural heritage projects.  In Memphis, there are many individual neighborhood possibilities but little in the way of a collaborative approach.  For example, typical cultural resource management archaeological projects result in gray literature reports and boxes of cultural materials, but little in the way public access or presentation.  A notable exception includes virtual presentations such as the Lamar Terrace project.  As well, for the past five years, the Rhodes College Crossroads to Freedom Project has collected oral history from the African American community.  I have posted before about community cultural heritage the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa collaborated on in Southwest Memphis.  But there is little or no effort to develop an interdisciplinary consortium of collaboration for these types of projects

Interdisciplinary projects have demonstrated considerable worth in broader community development.  For example, at the University of Memphis a colleague, Katherine Lambert-Pennington recently received national recognition for her work in this area.

When considering cultural heritage projects such as at Orange Mound, an interdisciplinary approach seems the most fitting.  The Collaborative for Cultural Heritage and Museum Practices (CHAMP) at the University of Illinois is one such example.  A quick scan of the CHAMP faculty demonstrates the broad interdisciplinary approach that the Collaborative can bring to any issue.  Consider the breadth of those faculty and their resources to envision any cultural heritage or museum project.  Consider how that interdisciplinary set of skills and ability will benefit the greater whole.  I suspect that there are few cultural heritage projects where going it alone will produce a better product.  However, such the multidisciplinary approach necessitates that we all move out of our individual silos and into a web of interconnection with others.

How can you benefit from a collaborative interdisciplinary relationship?

A Hands-on vs. Hands-off Approach

Scavenger Hunt at the American Museum of History in Washington D.C.

My wife and I are visiting Washington D.C. this week for my first visit in over 20 years – long overdue.  We are staying a quick metro ride from the Mall where the suite of Smithsonian Institution museums are located.  Even before entering the first venue we recognized that we would not be able to “do” all the museums in DC on this 5 day visit and vowed to come back before another 20 years passed.

Monday, our first stop was the American History Museum – which turned out to be our only stop for the day as well.  I got stuck for six hours on the 3rd Floor “Price of Freedom” exhibit that traces the wars of the United States from the 1700s to the present day.  As a child of the 60-70s, I was transfixed with a presentation on the military that had seemed so black and white during the Vietnam War period of my youth.  One takeaway from the exhibit is that the United States has pretty much either always been at war, been preparing for war, or in the aftermath of war – that war is more the norm for the United States than is peace.  Another takeaway was seeing the human face of war.  The exhibit reminded me of a line I read from Studs Terkel’s The Good War when he interviewed a GI from WWII who noted the shock that the German soldiers they encountered looked just like them.

Students in my Museum Practices seminar at the University of Memphis would have been amused that I spent the six hours reading all the text panels, and pushing the few buttons available to watch the occasional video or slide show presentation in the exhibit.  The students often view a museum as a one-time experience they need to take in during a single visit.  My perspective is more a take what you like and come back for another visit to continue the experience.

There was something else about the American History Museum that struck me – the experience is, for the most part, very hands-off.  Any notion of a “participatory” experience in the contemporary use of the term is pretty much nonexistent at the American History Museum.

And there are busload after busloads of youth scattered throughout all three floors of the museum on senior field trips from throughout the U.S. and abroad.  The scavenger hunt experience (pictured above) seemed a popular form of engagement for the youth.  I was impressed as well with the occasional student seen giving spontaneous presentations on exhibits to their classmates.  And their were lots of impatient youth running about and exhausted adults.  I saw no docent led tours, or any of the other supplementary offerings to enhance the visitor experience.

Nina Simon has discussed shades of this topic over the years in her Museum 2.0 blog such as here.

For me, the American History Museum experience worked.  Seemingly, for many others, this traditional hands-off (but perhaps minds-on) museum approach worked as well, including among the youth.  There is little apparent contributory, collaborative, or co-creative anything with the visitor experience at the American History Museum.  But the place is packed.  Does this work because it is the Smithsonian American History Museum and can get away with treating the visitor more as spectator?  Or should the Smithsonian be one type of experience and other museums another?

Online Resources for Realtime Museums

Each fall I teach a course in Museum Practices as one of the core courses in the University of Memphis Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program.  Each class period during the 15-week seminar covers some aspect of Museum Practices in everything from Personnel Management to Virtual Museums.  Over the past couple of years, I am increasingly mindful of the number and diversity of resources available online for the weekly topics.  As well, the number of topical areas in Museum Practices have increased dramatically.  Twenty years ago issues of digital technology and virtual museums were not considered.

This year, to cope with the sheer quantity of information available, students are providing three to five annotated references on the weekly topics.  My thinking is that at the very least, by the end of the course students will create a list of more than 500 references including websites, blogs, journal articles, books, and museums.  A bonus is that the class includes Art Historians, Egyptologists, Anthropologists, Historians and Fine Arts students.  This range of interests assures a diversity of perspectives.  I am very pleased with the results in the first month.  I will be certain to the link a compilation of the references to this blog at the end of the semester.  Here are a few of the resources students discovered to date that relate directly to Archaeology, Museums and Outreach:

Samantha Smith reported on  a link from the Smithsonian Institution that provides curriculum standards for all 50 of the United States.  This resource is invaluable for those developing Museum or Archaeology educational programs linked to curriculum standards in their states.  As well, for those developing a virtual program presence, they can be certain their products are suitable for a broad regional audience.

Tiffany Redman found a link at the Metropolitan Art Museum that contained downloadable resources such as Powerpoints, lesson plans, articles, and teaching packets on many of the permanent collections from Korean to Roman art.   Although intended to complement museum visits, the material is a great deal of stand alone teaching resource as well.  This type of information is representative of a growing trend of museums to place pre- and post-visit school group materials online.

One of the resources Becky McGee provided was from the Turkish archaeological site of Catal Hoyuk.  As with the MET link, the Catal Hoyuk webpage represents a growing trend in archaeological sites to provide up-to-date reporting on research, interpretations, and collections online.  The Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism is quite active in this arena.

Tameka Townes found that MuseumSpot is an excellent resource for online offerings from hundreds of museums throughout the world.  Again, the focus is on the information that the institutions provide online, whether in the form of podcasts, digital photos, or lesson plans.

Lauren Huber reported on the Global Museum.  Like MuseumSpot, the Global Museum has links to podcasts, publications, scholarly articles, social networking and much more.  You can sign up for email updates that are long, somewhat jumbled, but come out on a regular weekly or so basis.

Here are a few takeaways that I have from reviewing the students work thus far.  First, beyond museums that exist only in virtual space, there is growing trend for museums that exist in physical space to load substantive content online.  This trend goes beyond advertising for real-time visits, but arguably begins to approach building dual institutions.  Second, out of the 150 or so annotated references posted to date, I was familiar with only about 10% of them.  In some ways this is not surprising given that 3/4 of the class this semester are graduate students in art history, not my strength area at all.  But at the same time, I consider myself reasonably savvy about matters online.  This exercise showed me that at mainline resources, such as the Smithsonian that I have linked to often, there is a substantive amount of data in the various nooks and crannies of the online world that is only a click away.

Gordon Wiley, a major figure in New World Archaeology from the last century allegedly stated that with the increased specialization in archaeology, he was the last of the generalists.  I am struck that within the world of online museum resources, the same has become true, and within a considerably shorter period.  Once again I realize that we are not in Kansas anymore.